Adam Alter
Feelings Provoke Action

Our environment shapes how we think, feel, and behave in ways we might not imagine.

Adam Alter
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Show Notes

New York Times Best Selling Author Adam Alter (@Adam Alter) discusses marketing, psychology, and breakthroughs. He is a Professor of Marketing and Psychology at NYU Stern School of Business. His new book, The Anatomy of a Breakthrough, provides a roadmap for getting unstuck on the path to breakthroughs in every sphere of life. Adam has an MA and a Ph.D. in social and cognitive psychology from Princeton, where he studied judgment and decision-making, specifically focusing on how we spend our time and money. He has a highly ranked Ted Talk and was voted NYU Stern Professor of the Year in 2020.  

“For successful artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, they all do this, whether they know they’re doing it or not. When you look at their careers, you see, explore, then exploit, explore and exploit. And it’s, that’s a recipe for success. ”

– Adam Alter

Key Takeaways:

  • Marketing and Communication: Marketing is about consumer behavior. To market anything, you want to look at how humans behave. If you want to direct their behavior in a particular way, it is best to make them feel something. All the best advertising, all the best communication, and the best appeals are grounded in making people feel something really fast.
  • AI and Idea Generation: Chat GPT is becoming an excellent ally for generating ideas. It is through a collaborative approach to get the best ideas out of AI. You can compare Chat GPT to having 10 intelligent people in a room to brainstorm ideas with. It is a powerful and fantastic brainstorming partner. 
  • Environmental Influence: Every living being is impacted by their environment. The color of paint on a wall, the weather, and your location all impact you. Spending time in nature and natural environments is crucial to noticing how the organic world affects you compared to our more fabricated cities and towns. If you are interested in this topic, you can find many of the principles mentioned in architectural, industrial design, space design, and civil engineering. Also, a lot of cognitive psychologists study behavioral architecture, which is the idea that even your immediate environment, like the room you’re sitting in, will affect the decisions you make.
  • PBTA. Pause, Breathe, Think, and Act. This powerful practice is a way to train your brain for high-intensity or high-stress environments. It is best to practice daily in some simulation where you feel external pressure that is not putting you at risk physically, emotionally, or mentally. 

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Welcome to the Mark Divine Show. I’m your host, Mark Divine. Thanks so much for joining me today. I do not take it lightly. I know your time is valuable. On the show, I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of some of the world’s most inspirational and compassionate resilient leaders. I love to talk to folks from all different walks of life, Stoic philosophers, entrepreneurs, motivational scientists, academics like my guest today. Who is Adam Alter, Professor of Marketing and Psychology at my old alma mater for my MBA at NYU Stern School of Business. He’s a New York Times bestselling author of three different books, Drunk Tank Pink Irresistible, and The Anatomy of a Breakthrough, which provides a roadmap for getting unstuck on the path to breakthroughs in every sphere of life, which we’ll be talking a lot about today. Adam has an MA and a PhD in social and cognitive psychology from Princeton, where he studied judgment and decision-making, specifically focusing on how we spend our time and money. And he’s also consulted for dozens of companies, nonprofits and governments around the world, and had one of the highest-ranked TED talks in 2017. He was voted NYU Stern Professor of the Year in 2020. Adam, thanks so much for joining me today. Appreciate your time. 

Mark Divine 1:12

Super stoked to have you here today. Appreciate your time. 

Adam Alter 1:14

Yeah. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Mark.


Mark Divine 1:17

I’m excited to talk to you about your work and your latest book Anatomy of a Breakthrough. But I always begin these shows by just asking really more about your story, like your origin story. Where’d you grow up? What were your influences that kind of got you interested in the things that you’re interested in now? What were your biggest challenges and struggles? 


Adam Alter 1:38

Yeah, I was born in South Africa. And when I was seven, I moved to Australia. And I lived in Australia for all of my schooling, right through to the end of my undergrad years. I liked a lot of things. I studied law, I studied actuarial science. I studied psychology, and I didn’t really know what to do. There’s something I talk about in my book that when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, as an undergrad, I realized I didn’t want to be an actuary. And I didn’t want to do high level financial math wasn’t what I wanted to spend my life doing. 


Mark Divine 2:06

It sounds awful to me, by the way. And I’m a recovering CPA. 


Adam Alter 2:10

Exactly, exactly. Well, we had all the accountant jokes, and the actuary jokes, and it wasn’t a good start as far as I was concerned. So I sat in on as many courses as I could, I sat in on first level english courses, philosophy courses, sociology, math, chemistry, everything you can imagine.


Mark Divine 2:25

You mean, you sat in without credit, you just…


Adam Alter 2:27



Mark Divine 2:27

Decided to audit the course, oh, that’s really cool.


Adam Alter 2:30

I spent about three months doing this, where I sat in one class after another, maybe getting a dose of four or five lectures from each one, which you could do because it was a big public institution, and no one really knew what you were doing it was anonymous. So you’d slip into the room, and you’d sit there. And I kind of drank in all of these different disciplines and figured out that I liked psychology and I liked law. And that’s what I ended up doing. Those were the two degrees I ended up doing. And at the end of all that I had to decide whether I wanted to do law psychology, and I was working in a corporate law firm, I enjoyed aspects of it, I really liked advocacy, and arguing and discussing and all of that. But I didn’t love the the weight of administration and bureaucracy that was attached to a lot of what I was doing. And so I became more interested in the psychology side of things, and came to Princeton to do a PhD about 20 years ago. And I never left the US. So I did my PhD. I study human judgment and decision making, particularly as it applies to how we spend our time and money in the service of well being, and trying to maximize our well being. 

I started at NYU as a professor in the business school where I studied marketing and psychology. And I’ve written a number of books on topics related to marketing and psychology over the last 15 years or so. And that’s how I got to where I am.


Mark Divine 3:40

With your doctoral studies, I’m curious, what did you kind of uncover about how we spend our time and money and the impacts? 


Adam Alter 3:48

Because I didn’t want to give the law up completely. I spent probably the first two of my five years as a doctoral student trying to hold on to the law and trying to understand morality and punishment and crime and why we do the things we do and why why juries behave the way they do, and how lawyers could argue more effectively, and all these sorts of failing legal questions. And then eventually, I realized that I was much less interested in that than I was in how people spend their time and money for greater welfare. And also more than that, just how institutions that are designed to promote welfare can do a better job of attracting our interests. So one of the things I’m very curious about is, if you are, say, a charitable organization, so you do good in the world, broadly speaking, you’re asking people to take something that’s theirs, their own money, their own resources, their own time, and to spend it on you, rather than on their kids or their friends or themselves. And that’s asking a lot of a species, it’s generally pretty rational. You know, we have a fairly strong sense of this idea that if I’ve earned something, it’s mine. And to get people to part with those resources to save animals or to save other humans who live on the opposite side of the planet. You’re asking a lot of people. 

So one of the questions it’s really puzzled me for a long time is A) Why do people do that why are we ever altruistic? Why do we ever behave in this way? That seems like it’s about good beyond the self, and then B) Assuming that we do that which we do. How do you maximize that? If you’re a charitable organization, how do you get people to part with their resources? That was a large part of my studies and continues to be a big interest for me. 


Mark Divine 5:18

And what did you find? Why does someone part with their money for a charitable cause? And how does an organization maximize that? 


Adam Alter 5:25



Mark Divine 5:26

In a non Machiavellian way? 


Adam Alter 5:28

Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s not a simple answer. There are a lot of different things you can do. But one of the simplest ways is to this kind of jujitsu move is to say, well, people are essentially selfish. So even a lot of altruistic behavior, or what looks like altruistic behavior is essentially a way to burnish the self image to feel good about yourself. 


Mark Divine 5:44

Virtue signaling.


Adam Alter 5:45

Yeah, it’s virtue signaling. But it’s also it’s inward focused, as well, you know, I’m always trying to work out what kind of person I am. And so if you know that to be the case, and you can maximize the delivery of that particular good, you know, that we will help you feel good about yourself, then that works pretty well. And one way to do that is to make people feel like they’re giving to a version of themselves. This is very interesting research that shows that after a hurricane comes through, you know, you’ve got Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they looked at the donations that followed to the people of New Orleans. And they’ve done this with lots of other hurricanes. And they find the people whose names begin with the same letter as the hurricanes name, donate more than other people, because there’s some sort of overlap, that grabs your attention. And that identity overlap pulls you in. And there’s a lot of evidence for this, that we were attracted to things that remind us of ourselves. And that’s where a lot of the good work is done. 


Mark Divine 6:36

That’s fascinating. You know, I’ve got a foundation, where we support vets who are suffering from post traumatic stress. And so I can see exactly what you’re talking about a lot of people who support our organization, they care deeply about veterans, some of them served, but a lot of them didn’t. And so I’ve always noticed that there’s a sense of, if I could have done it again, or if I could have like, split myself into two paths, I would have liked to have served. But you know, it wasn’t for me. 


Adam Alter 7:04



Mark Divine 7:05

And so by supporting the veterans service, it makes them feel a little bit like they’re serving in this. 


Adam Alter 7:10

Absolutely. I understand that that makes total sense. 


Mark Divine 7:13

You studied this. And did you put this to work after your PhD right away? Or did you move into something different? 


Adam Alter 7:19

I did, I went right from my PhD at NYU, and moved, right from psychology to marketing, because a lot of the ideas that I was interested in were about marketing broadly. So how do you market ideas? Marketing is also about consumer behavior. And that’s what I’m most squarely interested in. So how do humans behave? How do you understand the way they’re behaving? And if you want to direct their behavior in a particular way, can you do that, obviously, in a way that’s not exploitative, but in a way that that is potentially good for them, and potentially good for some kind of greater thing, whatever that thing might be. The best place to study that I think is probably in a business school, because that’s where you have the most leverage to, to actually do policy work and to make actual change. 


Mark Divine 8:00

A lot has changed in the world since 2020. And including, you know, consumer behavior, and, and we have all on a difficulty really grabbing attention. So what’s your perspective on the latest trends or best practices for companies? A lot of listeners here are small business owners or entrepreneurs or, you know, executives, what do you see is what, you know, best way to really reach people, you know, cause marketing comes to mind really, really, you know, leading with kind of multistakeholder authenticity, you know, those are the things that I’m kind of seeing, but what are you seeing? 


Adam Alter 8:35

Yeah, so I think here are two things that I think capture attention pretty reliably and effectively, and that they’re missing from a lot of bad advertising, bad communication, and one of them is a violation of expectation. So when you expect something to happen, and it does happen, you as an engine that’s going out into the world trying to find interesting things, as you always do, as a human being does, you will overlook that thing, because it’s doing exactly what you expected, you’re going to divert your attention to something else. We are constantly looking attention wise for violations of our expectations. And so as soon as you give someone a message that surprises them that does something different from what they expect, zigs, when they expect you to zag, that’s when you’ll get their attention. So that’s one first principle is that if you’re doing something that is run of the mill, not surprising, it’s not going to grab people, they’re going to keep their attention for something else. The second thing, this is a sort of separate principle, but I think you can layer them one on top of the other is that it’s very, very hard to tell people things information, content, to give them content, and to have them take that on board because they’re bombarded by 1000s of messages every day. It’s much easier to make them feel something and once they feel something then you might be able to tell them something, give them content. 

And so all the best advertising, all the best communication, all the best appeals, or the best charitable work and so on, is grounded in making people feel something really fast. In the first five to 10 seconds of some engagement, you can make people feel something, you will have them in a way that you won’t if you don’t inspire an emotional response. So if you can do those two things really quickly, in the first 10 seconds, violate their expectation, surprise them, and also make them feel something, you are doing better than 99.9% of communicators out there. And those are enduring principles, this is always going to be true doesn’t matter whether we have generative AI or not, doesn’t matter what sort of world we’re living in virtual or real. If you do those two things, you’ll be head and shoulders above the rest of the population. 


Mark Divine 10:30

I like that, violate their expectations. 


Adam Alter 10:33



Mark Divine 10:33

That’s a pretty interesting term. How do you think AI is changing marketing right now? In what ways? I guess they don’t like we’re using it for copywriting. It’s so so easy to crank out a blog post and modify it, you know, whereas it used to take hours, stuff like that. That’s one way, what else are you seeing?


Adam Alter 10:50

I’m seeing a lot of idea generation coming from AI. So here’s an example. It’s very, very hard to write the first say, page of a book chapter, even the first sentence. So you’re sitting with this blank page, you’re trying to say something, you have a sort of fuzzy sense of what you’re trying to say, you can spend the entire day working on that first sentence or two. Or you can go to chat GPT and say to it, hey, I’m starting this chapter, here are five things that I’m broadly trying to say in that chapter. You can be fuzzy about it, can you give me five ways to start this chapter? And then you read the five things that tells you then you say, Okay, I like number three, can you put a spin on it, where you’re a bit more formal or a bit more informal, or you’re writing in the style of Charles Dickens, or doesn’t really matter. You could tell it to do pretty much anything. And so you effectively have, you know, if you think of your 10 smartest friends, if they were all in a room, and you could always turn to them and say, Hey, here’s an idea. What do you guys think? What do you men or women think about this? You know, you’re demanding a lot of them. But Chat GPT is always there. And it’s always the sort of sum product of everything, all this information and swirling around. And so it’s a great brainstorming partner. And I think that’s where in marketing and even more broadly than that, where where it’s doing its best work is as a kind of ever-present ever available interlocutor who will go back and forth with you on your ideas. 


Mark Divine 12:05

I love that. And that that lines up perfectly. Did you see the article from MIT, came out of MIT work just the other day, talking about um Chat GPT for idea generation, for business concepts for entrepreneurism. 


Adam Alter 12:19



Mark Divine 12:19

They had 100 students, and you know, they tried to generate all these, you know, ideas, and then they went into Chat GPT, and so, they found out that Chat GPT, was not only better at generating good ideas, but it was also better at generating the best ideas. But they said that the way they got to the best ideas through was through this collaborative approach, right to this, almost like a, like an aid. 


Adam Alter 12:41

It obviously just contains a tremendous amount of information.


Mark Divine 12:44



Adam Alter 12:45

But it’s not very good at giving you what you need the first time. But if you go back and forth, 5-6-7 times you iterate over and over again, you coach it, you train it in that session, you converge on what you’re looking for, then it’s really it can be quite good. But I think most people assume you just ask a question, you give it a prompt, and then it gives you you know, instantly perfect feedback. That’s just not the way it works. Because it doesn’t know exactly what you’re looking for. That connective tissue is not what it does. It just has all that information, and then can toss it out there. You have to basically guide it on that second, third, fourth step of the journey. And then it can be quite good.


Mark Divine 13:17

Right. Now, since we’re still on the topic. I’m curious is that we’re dealing with this at Pepperdine. And this fall, for the first time, I’m seeing some guidelines on, you know, proper use of generative large language models versus what they’re not going to accept. Right.


Adam Alter  13:31



Mark Divine 13:32

So how is NYU handling that right now?


Adam Alter 13:34

So at the moment, a lot of the power is with the individual professor, which is interesting. They haven’t developed a formal policy about it. So I was told, you can either tell the students not to use Chat GPT and there’s no real way to make sure that that’s happening. Or you can say to them, I don’t mind if you use it, but I’d like you to cite whenever you do and explain what you prompt in what you asked. Again, it’s impossible to ensure that that’s actually what they’re doing. They can still get get away with not doing it. Or you can do something in between, you can say, you know, here’s an assignment where I’d like you to use Chat GPT, I assume you’re going to use it.


Mark Divine 14:07

Teach them how to use it effectively, yeah.


Adam Alter 14:09

Exactly. So what I’ve done is a little bit of all of these things. Most of what I’m doing at the moment now is a lot of in-class assessment when I don’t want them to use Chat GPT because I couldn’t control it. So we do a lot of exam or we do two exams in my class in class, then they have an assignment that’s designed so the Chat GPT might help you a little bit but it’s not going to complete the whole assignment for you. You know, you still need room for application and ingenuity. I don’t think Chat GPT will help and I’ve designed it specifically that way. But I can tell you I had to overhaul my class. Most of what I was assigning would be gameable, in five minutes I asked Chat GPT to answer my assignment and it gave me a B plus answer. So I had something different.


Mark Divine 14:47

That’s awesome. 


Adam Alter 14:48



Mark Divine 14:48

Yeah, so any professor who’s lazy or sitting on your tenure who hasn’t attended their classes are just gonna they’re gonna get their butts handed to them.


Adam Alter 14:56

Thier in trouble. 


Mark Divine 14:57

How do you cite Chat GPT any any like standard arising like, I can see if you have to cite all the prompts. I mean, all of a sudden your your citation or reference section just turned into a 10 page document. 


Adam Alter 15:08

Yeah. I guess that’s true. I’ve never had to do that myself. And I also haven’t asked my students to do it yet. So I’m not sure what I would expect there. But I wouldn’t ask so much for what it pumps out. I’d asked more for, what did you ask it? 


Mark Divine 15:20

Prompts can get quite lengthy, though, you know.


Adam Alter 15:22

They can they can, that’s true. Although I think that’s where the ingenuity is from the human side. You know, I would want to know, are my students being thoughtful about what they’re asking from the botform.


Mark Divine 15:31

Right, so less is more maybe. 


Adam Alter 15:33

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Also, are they moving in a direction? That seems like it’s eliciting better and better prompts over time? And I would give them points for that. You know, there’s a skill to that. 


Mark Divine 15:42

Oh, interesting. Your first book, I think it’s maybe not your first, but I’m curious about the title Drunk Tank Pink


Adam Alter 15:49

It was my first. 


Mark Divine15:50

Well, what’s up with that? Is that a, was that a marketing book, or, I love the title. 


Adam Alter 15:55

Thank you. Yeah. That’s why I chose it, because it’s speaking of violation of expectations. Drunk Tank Pink. Drunk Tank Pink is the shade of pink paint that naval officers used to use, they paint the inside of their drunk tanks, their cells, where they would put unruly rowdy sailors, they just throw them in there.


Mark Divine 16:13

To just bug the shit out of the sailors to calm them down a little bit.


Adam Alter 16:17

Exactly. That was the idea that this bright pink was supposed to calm them down. And there was some sort of tentative evidence that this was the case, a number of prisons around the US did something similar. The visiting locker room at Iowa at the University of Iowa now in the visiting football locker is now painted pink, and I have pink metal lockers and everything. 


Mark Divine 16:35



Adam Alter 16:35

So, you know, it’s got some interesting applications. And I, the whole book is basically about all of these things around us that shape how we think, feel and behave in ways we not might not imagine. 


Mark Divine 16:43



Adam Alter 16:43

And that was, I thought, a nice emblem for that kind of thing. 


Mark Divine 16:47

I want to double-click on that a little bit, because maybe not everyone, but we certainly talk about it a lot in my community, SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind are my companies. And we’ve got a program of vertical development through multi-dimensional growth stimulus. That includes Eastern dials movers such as breathwork, and visualization, and contemplation, and mindfulness, combined with classical Western drivers of growth, such as psychotherapy, Shadow Work, physical and decision-making prowess, overcoming bias. By bringing these together in a multi-dimensional integrated program, we tend to see accelerated growth and breakthroughs. So I know breakthrough, growth, challenge, you know, through challenge or through different stimulus is something that you do a lot of work on anyways, circling back to Drunk Tank Pink, getting people to understand the context is as important as content, it takes a little bit, but once they kind of open up to that, and like, oh, my god, yeah, the context is shaping my experience and shaping how content is created in my decision models and my mental models. It’s a game-changer. And so people who understand this, like you are talking about painting, you know, the visiting locker room walls, pink, can shape the context of an individual, without them realizing it, which is going to shape their reality. So what are what are some other examples where people might be, let’s say, manipulated through the context of their environment?


Adam Alter 18:13

Their environmental influences, like color, like weather conditions, like heat and cold, like the size of a room, the way the room is designed, a lot of these principles are grounded in architecture and industrial design and space design and civil engineering, you know, a lot of principles that govern the way you design a city and the way you design a home and the way you design any other space. And even more narrowly than that. There are a lot of cognitive psychologists who study behavioral architecture, which is this idea that even your immediate environment like the desk in front of you, the room that you’re sitting in, when you’re working, the decisions you make, as you construct that space will shape how you do that work, and what kind of work you end up producing. You know, in the book, in Drunk Tank Pink, I spent the last part of the book talking about these very physical factors that shape the context and have a big effect. Color, weather, locations, nature and natural environments are very important. They have a huge effect on welfare. The other sections I talked about the sort of social environment, who else is in the room with you? Are you doing things alone or with other people? Are you doing them virtually? Or are you doing them face to face, all of that matters as well. And then there are even smaller narrower queues, I spend a lot of time with a lot of interest on on names and naming and the language we use to describe things. 


Mark Divine 19:24

That’s fascinating, yeah.


Adam Alter 19:25

There are languages where many of the nouns are gendered the word for bridge in Spanish is masculine, and the word for bridge in German is feminine. And when you ask people who speak German to draw a bridge, they draw therefore a more feminine looking bridge then do people in Spain. This kind of research just shows that we are swimming in this constant sea of all of these little cues, small cues and big cues that are constantly shaping how we think and to the extent you understand and can not necessarily marshal them but recognize them and perhaps try to stave off the ones you want to stave off change the ones you want to change and amplify the ones you want to amplify, I think it puts you in a more powerful position in general. 


Mark Divine 20:03

Yeah, I agree. I did a program last year that I was having yet turned into a book, but I call it the exponential mindset. And I talked about the five minds, or five ways of cognizing. One was embodied cognition and so that the context of the body, a healthy body is going to be more powerful than if you’re, you know, if you’re 20-30 pounds overweight and broken down and feeling pitiful about yourself, right. And embodied cognition also comes into play in development, like leadership development, or self-concept, personal development. And then I call it contextual mind or contextual cognition, this is what we’re talking about really understanding the context of your life really, mostly, and to include how language and how the conditioning of your parents and your religion and everything your academic, how it all affects you to construct your story. And then I talk about situated and social cognition, which you just mentioned, like situation that you place yourself in, what’s the room like, you know, if you want to feel spacious, then work outdoors, or even have a picture of a landscape. And there’s no research, the showing that really does change, you know, your, your thinking.


Adam Alter 21:05



Mark Divine 21:05

And then social cognition, of course, like, who you associate with and surrounding yourself with really positive people who, you know, share beliefs, but you know, then there’s, there’s issues there that you know are around diversity, right. So you gotta be careful, you’re not stovepiping yourself in a homogeneous environment. And then the extended, you know, I didn’t come up with obviously, with extended cognition, but this idea that we extend ourselves through technology. And that could be a sticky note or an iPhone, or, you know, a synaptic device, you know,  a neural link connected to our head someday. 


Adam Alter 21:33

Right, exactly. 


Mark Divine 21:35

I hope I don’t go there. Right, I won’t miss I’m held down and implanted in me. That’s a whole different subject.


Adam Alter 21:40

Yeah, it is. 


Mark Divine 21:41

And then the fifth one, I just sharing this because I don’t think my audience ever heard it is just integrated cognition, is like having the ability to bring it all together, and to see how your experience is like a co-arising of all these things. 


Adam Alter 21:53



Mark Divine 21:54

It’s powerful stuff. So I look forward to learning more about that work. Let’s let’s talk about your breakthrough book. Where did this come from? Like, what was the inspiration behind that? 


Adam Alter 22:04

I mean, I think it’s a universal human experience to feel stuck at various points. And often that stuckness can extend beyond, beyond a week beyond a month can be years, it can be a very long period of time, it can feel intractable, like, there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve been in those positions, I was in that position, trying to work out what I wanted to do with my career, for example, I’ve experienced similar situations like that at other points, and I’ve seen it in other people. And I’ve heard from other people that they felt the same way. So I started running the survey a few years ago, and I’ve now collected data from 1000s of people all around the world asking, is there a sense in which you feel stuck right now? Can you tell me about it? Almost everyone says, yes, the vast majority way over 90%, say, Yes, give me a few seconds, and I’ll tell you about it. And then they start typing. And they’re pretty eloquent about it, they say that it feels pretty bad. It’s something that really occupies a lot of their time and energy and attention. They are willing to spend a lot of their resources on fixing it. And so I realized that there was this sort of hungry market out there of people who, who wanted to solve this problem. And I thought, based on the research I’d been doing for 15-20 years that I had some answers, and I wanted to put them together in the form of this book, which is essentially a kind of recipe book. It’s a guide for getting unstuck. It sort of suggests a process that, broadly speaking, I call a friction audit, for auditing your frictions and getting unstuck using that process. And that’s what this book.


Mark Divine 23:25

I love it, and 90 some odd percent of the clients who come to us they come because they’re stuck. And you know, we have a process and a path and tools and practices to help them get unstuck. But it always starts with, you know, the coaching really starts with that audit. Like you said, not your audit, but you know, an audit. You organize the book into, and I love this too, because you say head, heart and habit. And we use the term Kokoro, which is a Japanese term, that means head, heart and mind merged into actions. So head heart and habits. Heart and mind merged into actions. 


Adam Alter 23:56

Yeah, it is. It sounds like it.


Mark Divine 23:58

It comes from the Zen tradition, which I’m heavily influenced by. Or you organize by heart, head and habits? Is it in that order in your book? 


Adam Alter 24:06

Yeah, it’s purposely in that order. In psychology, we often talk about ABC affect behavior and cognition, which is the same thing. Basically, its heart behavior and thought, in this case, I think the mistake a lot of us make when we’re stuck is we flail, we want to act instantly. So we want to behave before we think about strategy. And before we deal with the emotional consequence of being stuck. And that often leads to suboptimal outcomes. And it means that the way you behave is often not the in the service of the best outcomes. This framework, because it starts with emotion is designed to force you or encourage you to deal with the the anxiety that comes with being stuck. And once you inhabit that and say, look, this doesn’t feel good. It’s okay. This is where I am right now. But now that I understand where I am, I can figure out what the next steps are. But even slowing down to do that, to kind of recognize those emotions is important because it prepares you better for the strategies that come with the next stage, the head stage, and then the stage after that, which is the action stage. 

Mark Divine 25:04

Yeah, it makes a lot of sense if you don’t have people come to you and say, I think I’m stuck. Now they say I feel stuck. 


Adam Alter 25:11



Mark Divine 25:11

And I’ve always been very suspicious of cognitive behavioral therapy for this reason, right? Because it’s like, how many times have I seen people like um, I used to own a CrossFit gym, and they just come in, they just start to change your behaviors. And they’re like, hey, you know, and they lose weight, and they feel good. And I see him nine months later, and they’re the same person before they started, they’ve just gone right back to those old habits and 20 pounds overweight again, I’m like, what happened? 


Adam Alter 25:33



Mark Divine 25:33

Well, you know, just stepping in across the gym and doing the actions is like cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s like, just changing the habits without changing the feelings and the thoughts that got you stuck in the first place, you know, that’s one dimensional, it doesn’t stick.


Adam Alter 25:47

Yeah, I think there’s a lot to be said, for understanding those underlying factors. Because those, as you say, if they don’t chang,e you, you revert back to whatever you were doing before you changed the behavior.


Mark Divine 25:56



Adam Alter 25:57

Some people think that behavior guides the cognition and guides the emotion. So if you can change the behavior, you fix everything else. But I think in a lot of cases, that’s just not true. You have to do the work to understand the emotional foundation that’s driving the behaviors and the feelings and the thoughts. 


Mark Divine 26:12

In my work, I found that it’s kind of a both and like you can work at it from both ends of the spectrum. 


Adam Alter 26:17

Makes sense.


Mark Divine 26:18

Right, so if you begin to change behaviors, you know, it starts to open up and offers kind of like experience pointers to the thinking and the emotion and then a good coach or therapist can say, okay, now, see how you’re thinking there. Let’s change that pattern. Let’s work on that. And while you’re feeling, you know, let’s come into that angle. 


Adam Alter 26:34



Mark Divine 26:35

And so that’s that multi-dimensional approach. I think it’s really cool to see so many people finally realizing even academia right that which is wanting to particularize everything down to an gnats butt and just study that, realizing that that’s really not how human beings work, or how systems work, we have to pan out and look at things multi dimensionally. And that’s difficult from a research perspective, you know.


Adam Alter 26:56



Mark Divine 26:56

You said, this is like a series or a big menu under these three categories. Can we kind of talk about some of the most impactful ideas in these three areas, starting with heart?


Adam Alter 27:06

I think the biggest one is just to slow down because as I said, our instinct is to go as fast as possible and…


Mark Divine 27:11



Adam Alter 27:11

To move too quickly and to rush to act. And so one of my favorite examples here is tracing the rise of Lionel Messi the soccer player. So Messi is one of the one of the best soccer players, I think, alive today. And some people say the best soccer player of all time, but he’s also famously quite anxious. And early in his career, he was so anxious that he would get on the onto the field, and he’d sometimes be unable to play or he really struggled to play some of his coaches, some other soccer giants themselves said, I don’t know that this guy’s ever going to be a success. Because his emotions keep getting in the way. One of his coaches really wisely said to him, you’re an incredibly gifted player, you have tremendous talent, you see the game very well, you strategically understand the game better than anyone, the way you handle the ball is excellent. So why don’t we sacrifice a couple of minutes at the beginning of the game to allow you to calm down once the game begins, because what I were finding was, he would have all these mantras, and he’d prepare and he’d, you know, five minutes before the game, you’d be thinking and he’d be concentrating, and then it didn’t help the game would begin and he’d be nervous all over again. So this coach said, why don’t you start that process during the game, so the whistle will go, there’ll be frantic running around all around you, you know the other players on the field to do what they’re doing. But you should just slow down, slow things down, walk around, you don’t have to move much, give yourself a couple of minutes, watch what everyone else is doing, get a sense of the field, how everyone’s interacting. 

And so he’s developing the strategic advantage that other people don’t have, because they’re so focused on the fact that the game has begun, he’s almost got this bird’s eye view, because he slows down and watches the interactions, he’s slightly less effective for those first few minutes. And he scores very few goals in the first minutes of the game, he’s never scored in the first minute of any game. He has scored in every other minute of the game. And what he is effectively doing is sacrificing those first few minutes in the service of the remaining 85 plus. And that has made him a dramatically more effective player. But I think you have to realize that you are sacrificing those few minutes, you’ve got to be okay with sacrificing those few minutes, which goes strongly against the grain. But I think it’s a really good sort of rule of thumb for how we, we deal with other areas of our lives that we’re always trying to, you know, the minute the whistle blows, whatever the context is, whether it’s sports, or otherwise, we want to go at 100 we want to go ramp up right to 100 and start doing whatever the thing is, but taking a bit of time, taking a couple of extra minutes early on is really valuable. And I think that’s one of many illustrations of that, the importance of that idea. 


Mark Divine 29:33

Yeah, I love that. And that, that aligns with Navy SEAL training and how we’re, how we’re conditioned to go about a mission and you know, in the most extreme, extreme and dangerous situations called combat, and we use the acronym PBTA. Pause, breathe, think about what’s going on, and then act. So at first it seems like wait, you know, if bullets are flying, you got to act you gotta you gotta move. Gotta find cover. You got to return fire. That immediately gets you into that sympathetic, you know, fight or flight and everyone’s running around like chickens with their head cut off. And we teach this starting day one a BUDS training. And then it’s you know, say okay, slow is smooth, smooth is fast, how do we go?, how do we get fast by going slow, pause, breathe, deploy the OODA Loop, think about it, orient what’s going on, you know, orient yourself to what’s going on, make a good decision. And that’s going to be a small micro-goal decision, and then act. And as you train this, and I’m sure this is the same with professional athletes, as you train this, then it starts to happen in real-time. And it looks really fast to an observer, but your experiences slow, smooth, effective.


Adam Alter 30:40



Mark Divine 30:40

So it has something to do with how the brain works and the control of time and the experience of time. It’s really powerful. So I love that that you that you offer that slow down to speed up. 


Adam Alter 30:50

Yeah, and you know, the versions, you’ve described the OODA loop, which I talked about in the book, PBTA, all of these are just, it doesn’t matter what the acronym is, the fact that they have four stages, a lot of them have four stages, is relevant, because what it’s essentially doing is just putting little mental roadblocks in the way that force you to slow down, thier little speed humps; so do this, then this, then this, then this now do the next thing. 

And I think that’s just a very valuable rule of thumb. And that’s why so many of these models, whether they’re the OODA loo[, or some other model, they all do the same basic thing, they slow you down.


Mark Divine 31:19

Right. And I think a lot of people miss it as you got to take it beyond theory and into practice. And so then as you practice it, it becomes, you know, a real time execution. So you don’t have to like stop while you’re on their soccer field and pause and breathe and think and then like, okay, now I know what I’m gonna do. 


Adam Alter 31:36



Mark Divine 31:36

No, you’re you’re you’re racing toward the sound of gunfire, so to speak, while in your mind you’re, you’re doing the OODA loop, right. 


Adam Alter 31:42

Right. Exactly. 


Mark Divine 31:43

That takes a little practice. So what about the head category with some impactful things that that work in there? 


Adam Alter 31:49

Yeah. So I think one of the most interesting things is how you put together a team. So you were talking about the cognition beyond the self. And a lot of cognition is about groups and the assembly of, of a team of people or a brain trust. And so there are essentially three different types of people that should be on any team. There are people who are homogeneous, or who think the same way who have the same backgrounds, the same training, perhaps have the same tradition, and there’s a lot of value in that. And maybe most people on the team should be like that they should have simpatico they should get along, they should feel comfortable with each other. But a lot of teams are just those people, that can be problematic. And so you’ve got to have two other kinds of people. I see this when recruiters from big companies come to NYU and I saw this in grad school as well when I was in grad school, that the recruiters from really good firms would come to the campus. And they’d say, instead of saying, you know, I’m a finance company, I want the 10 best finance students, they would come in and say, I’m a finance company, I want the best finance student, the best marketing student, the best chemical engineer, the best Russian literature major, they would bounce around, and they would assemble what are essentially known as nonredundant actors. So these are people who are non overlapping in their traditions. So you have all these people in the group already who do overlap. That’s the first kind, but then you bring in some people who are non-redundant. And the reason for that is you want to have sort of basic capacity for learning among those people. And they can be on boarded if there’s some technical knowledge they need. But the diversity of tradition that they bring is really valuable, because they see things differently. And then they add something useful there. So that’s the second kind of person is these non-redundant actors.

 And then the third kind is going one step further, actively cultivating black sheep, and bringing Black Sheep into the fold. And Pixar, the animation studio attached to Disney has done this for a while very successfully with some of the best, most awarded films, they’ll have, you know, all of these people who are focusing on on animation, making the fur on a monster look like fur and the hair on a child look like hair, the water look like water. But they get so in the weeds on that that some of the producers will say, well, let’s bring someone in who works on narrative. And that person thinks narrative is way more important than any kind of decisions you’re making about the specifics of animation. And so what you have is this black sheep who comes in and says, Hey, that’s great that the water looks 100% like water and looks more like water than any animation before. But no one’s ever gonna get there if we don’t spend 80% of our time working on the narrative. If the story is not great, within five minutes, you’re going to lose everyone. So these three kinds of people on teams are a great unsticking tool, the people who overlap the people who are non redundant, and then the act of black sheep go against the grain. And the kind of dosage of each each of those is I would say something like 80% overlap, maybe 15%, who think nonredundant leader from different disciplines, and then maybe 5%, who are actively black sheep, something like that. 


Mark Divine 34:41

Wow. And the whole time you’re talking about that I was thinking about getting back to my Navy SEAL experience, how you know, the selection process, and what comes out of that of my class 185 students at the beginning and 19 graduates and there was a lot of homogeneity, but there was some serious non redundancy like people from all sorts of different cultures, different languages, and some a couple people who I’m like, huh, how did you get through here, right,  like…


Adam Alter 35:07



Mark Divine 35:08

He was always back-talking the instructor always second-guessing every decision, and they were the black sheep. So somehow, somehow they figured this out, or it just kind of naturally happened because, you know, through the arduous 10-12 month training, you know, just they knew what they needed for the team. 


Adam Alter 35:23

I think that’s right. 


Mark Divine 35:24

Is there any other insights on how you develop, how do you move that from concept to practice for an organizational leader? 


Adam Alter 35:31

Well, I think watching recruiters from very successful firms has always been really instructive to me, because they know they know what they’re looking for. 


Mark Divine 35:38



Adam Alter 35:39

You know, as you said, you don’t have to try very hard, you know, five, maybe 5% of people are just naturally kind of black sheep. Like in their approach to the world. They question everything. If we all did that, it would be chaos. You don’t want a team full of questioners, right? But you do want that one intelligent person who says, well, hang on, why is this the orthodoxy, is that the way it should be, you know, the curiosity of a child in an adult is a very powerful thing. But if everyone has the curiosity of a child, we’re never going to get anywhere, you want to have that in doses. And so I think, you know, if you want to be really deliberate about it, and you’re putting together a team is to say, well, this team is going to be 10 people, I want at least one person who gets along with everyone ideally, we don’t want have fights breaking out with everyone’s disagreeing all the time, we want harmony to an extent, but, but also, this person kind of pushes back more than I’m used to, and more than I would otherwise, like, but I’m looking for that. 

And so then you go out and you act, you actively recruit for that. 


Mark Divine 36:31

And you gotta be okay with some some level of conflict.


Adam Alter 36:35



Mark Divine 36:35

With an elite team, that conflict comes from those discordant ideas. And if everyone just says, you know, screw you or get all offended, then you get stuck again. So, gotta be able to move through conflict quickly get to the higher level truth, you know.


Adam Alter 36:50



Mark Divine 36:50

So we’re kind of coming toward the end here. But we haven’t talked about the habits. I imagine it’s very circumstantial, or situational. But like, what, what are some of the big takeaways from that research, that chapter?


Adam Alter 37:03

One of the really useful ideas is that in acting, there are sort of two things you can do. And this comes from the world of evolutionary biology, you can explore or you can exploit. And exploring is going as broad as possible. So you imagine you turn a corner, and there’s this huge landscape in front of you, it’s 100 acres, and you’re looking for something, maybe it’s food, you know, you go back in time, humans, we’re always looking for food, trying to avoid danger, you don’t know where that food is, you don’t know if there’s an area where the animals are congregated, or the berries are clustered, or whatever it is. And so what you do is you go as broad as possible, and you sweep the territory, and you try your best to kind of locate a fruitful patch. But once you find a fruitful patch, you switch into exploit mode, you drill down as far as you can you make sure you leave nothing behind. But you can’t do those two things at the same time, you have to either be in exploit mode or explorer mode. And that’s true of our careers as well, and of getting unstuck, that you’re either a sort of vacuum cleaner that says yes to everything takes in all information and says I’m open to anything. I talked to the freshmen at NYU, and I always tell them this: this is the period of your life where you have the greatest chance of stumbling on something that will be useful to you for the rest of your life. Say yes to everything. That’s your job here. 


Mark Divine 38:14

College is an exploration PhD, or that’s a drilling. 


Adam Alter 38:18

Exactly. And so so there you should be exploring, but you can’t do that forever. You can’t say yes to everything forever, because you’ll never get anywhere, eventually you have to say alright, this is the point where I pivot to exploit mode. Now it’s about drilling down and getting as deep as I can into this thing that seems like it’s going to be valuable. And you find this for successful artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, they all do this, whether they know they’re doing it or not. When you look at their careers, you see, explore, then exploit, explore and exploit. And it’s, that’s a recipe for success. 


Mark Divine 38:46

So if you’re feeling stuck, then you need to go back into explorer mode. 


Adam Alter 38:50

Exactly. And if you’re doing really well stay in exploit mode, keep drilling down.


Mark Divine 38:54

I hear what you’re saying about not being able to do both simultaneously. But can you train yourself to have like a 20%, this is like Google 20% of your brain is constantly an explorer mode, so you don’t miss anything. While you’re exploiting your strength?


Adam Alter 39:08

I think you can do that I see a lot of people who are trying to change careers or change jobs. And they do exactly that, right? You say you’re an aspiring songwriter, or something like that, your day job is the thing that you do to kind of keep you going. And so you’re doing that most of the time you’re exploiting, but you want to explore this new thing that you’re looking at, maybe you carve out 20% of the day for that. And so there is a way to do that, I think but in the moment, in any moment in time, you can’t really be doing both, it’s very hard. So you can carve up your day or your week or your month, but I think it’s hard to go beyond beyond just sort of jumping between the two in general. 


Mark Divine 39:41

Yeah, it’s you get a little cognitive dissonance and you don’t you only go an inch deep and all this learning things. Yeah.


Adam Alter 39:47



Mark Divine

Fascinating. What a fascinating conversation. And thanks so much for your for your time today, and for your work, and so where can people find you ,and your your book and you know, if they want to reach out to you to even allow that? I know you’re busy professor, author, and all that. 


Adam Alter 40:03

Yeah, but the nice thing about professors is all of their information is available online. We have to put our email address on our homepage. 


Mark Divine 40:08

There you go.


Adam Alter 40:10

So you can find it very easily. If you want to reach out, feel free to send me an email, and I’ll do my best to respond. I get a lot of emails, but I’ll try try my best. I am most active on LinkedIn. I do most of my posts there because I prefer the longer form. I do a little bit of posting on Twitter-X. And so I’m there as well under the handle Adam Lee Alter: A-d-a-m L-e-e A-l-t-e-r. And then I have a homepage that’s got whatever the latest stuff is that I’m thinking about and writing. 


Mark Divine 40:36

And you can find information about Anatomy of a Breakthrough there? Any, any like tools or anything that you give away, or do you just have them by the book? 


Adam Alter 40:43

Yeah, well, there’s there’s the book, but the book actually, the last thing in the book is 100 ways to get unstuck, which site instead of having a separate giveaway, I thought I’d build it into the book. So the epilogue of the book is essentially a 100-point list that digests all of the ideas and makes them very practical. 


Mark Divine 40:57

Yeah, that sounds great. Alright, and um, thank you again. I really appreciate your your time. And Hooyah to you, sir. 


Adam Alter 41:03

Thanks, Mark. Appreciate it. 


Mark Divine41:05

Yeah, my pleasure.


Mark Divine  41:08  

That was a fascinating conversation with Adam, thank you so much for your time. I love learning about marketing making you feel before you tell them what you want, and surprising your audience. Really fascinating discussion about The Anatomy of a Breakthrough; heart, head, and habit. Thank you so much for your time, Adam. I really appreciate it. Show notes will be up on our website at MarkDivine.com. The video of this podcast will be on our YouTube channel. And if you want to reach out to us on social media, on X -Twitter, at Mark Divine and on Instagram or Facebook, I’m @ Real Mark Divine, and of course, I’m on LinkedIn. If you’re not on my newsletter, email distribution, check it out at Mark Divine.com. To subscribe, Divine Inspiration comes out every Tuesday, Tuesday morning, that is,  where I have my weekly blog and show notes for my weekly podcast. 

If you’re short on time, you can check those out. A book that I’m reading, a practice, and other interesting things that come across my desk. So check it out. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your friends and team. Thanks so much to my own team of Jason Sanderson and Geoff Haskell and Catherine Divine, who help produce this podcast and the newsletter and bring guests like Adam to you every week. 

Ratings reviews are very helpful. So if you haven’t done so, please consider rating and reviewing the show wherever you listen to it. It helps keep it up in the rankings. And thanks again as always, for being the change you want to see in the world. One day at a time, or one day one lifetime as my mentor Kaicho taDashi Nakamura, Grandmaster Nakamura used to say, one day one lifetime. All we’ve got is today, so let’s make it work. And let’s bring some more positivity and clarity into our lives and then lead with that. So till next time, Hooyah, bye now.


Transcribed by Catherine https://otter.ai



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